A local business owner is taking Oak Bluffs to court, saying that arbitrary wastewater rules have prevented her from opening a business for several years.
Julie Keefe, owner of Notalot Farm Shop, filed a complaint with Dukes County Superior Court on Monday, Sept. 25, to appeal the Oak Bluffs Wastewater Commission decision not to sign a certificate of occupancy, a document certifying a business owner is in compliance with local codes and regulations.
“It’s been going on since 2018, dealing with wastewater,” Keefe told The Times, whose business had not been able to open yet.
The suit named the town alongside the Oak Bluffs wastewater department and members of the Oak Bluffs wastewater commission.
According to the complaint, the Keefes purchased an Oak Bluffs garage in 2018 that was meant to be converted into the Notalot Farm Shop, where prepared takeout food would be sold.
After a December 2018 hearing, the commission determined the store would be allocated 97 gallons of daily water use, as long as a bedroom was removed from a house adjacent to the garage.
The suit alleges that the commission then retroactively required a deed restriction, which forced Keefe to submit a request for a new flow application. The complaint states a revised plan was eventually approved by the commission last July, after a hearing. But the complaint alleges that despite following the town’s instructions, Keefe is still facing issues with the commission.
The commission is refusing to sign off on a certificate of occupancy because of an ice machine, sinks, and work tables, even though they were listed in a plan already approved by the commission in July, according to the complaint.
The complaint also lists three Oak Bluffs businesses — the Corner Store, Winston’s Kitchen, and Good Dog Goods — that allegedly received “arbitrary and capricious” increases in flow. Keefe also points out that Winston’s Kitchen and the Corner Store both have ice machines, but they were not raised as an issue by the commission.
“They just seem to make different rules for different people,” Keefe told The Times.
The complaint states the plaintiff was aggrieved by the Oak Bluffs wastewater department, which allegedly exceeds its authority. Additionally, it described the commission’s denials as “unreasonable, unfair, and inequitable.”
“Wastewater’s denial of [the] plaintiff’s 2020 plan and equipment is arbitrary and capricious,” the complaint reads. “[The] plaintiff relied on wastewater’s decision that flow would be allocated to the Farm Shop if and when [the] plaintiff removed a bedroom from the house, which plaintiff did at substantial expense. In view of [wastewater] allowing many other businesses to increase flow, wastewater’s decisions to refuse to issue a certificate of occupancy and allow a change of use or flow application are an abuse of discretion. In addition, because wastewater will be increasing its flow capacity in the near future, forcing [the] plaintiff to remove sinks and equipment is unnecessary and punitive. Wastewater’s refusal to sign off on [the] plaintiff’s certificate of occupancy results in continual prejudice to plaintiff’s rights to operate a business at the property.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order the commission to sign off on the certificate of occupancy, and to assess damages for the interference with Keefe’s right to occupy the building, alongside costs and attorney’s fees.
When The Times asked Oak Bluffs Association executive director Billie Jean Sullivan whether other business owners have also complained about the Oak Bluffs wastewater department’s conduct, she said some people did seem to have an issue with the process. While Sullivan declined to comment on the lawsuit itself, she said she wants businesses to flourish, and opportunities need to be given — particularly to younger and new entrepreneurs.
Oak Bluffs wastewater facilities manager Patrick Hickey and commission chair Gail Barmakian declined to comment on the lawsuit.